One of End Hunger UK’s priorities is ensuring children receive adequate nutrition 365 days a year. Increasingly, schools and teachers are filling the gaps when children in poverty are going without. Lizzie Flew, from End Hunger UK partner organisation Child Poverty Action Group, writes about recent work that they have done with the National Education Union, that shows more and more teachers are spending time and money supporting poor children.
School is a huge part of a child’s life and a teacher’s role often extends beyond a traditional view of education. We learned from our recent survey of over 900 teachers and school staff that schools are increasingly filling holes in the safety net for children growing up in poverty. Half of respondents stated that their school directly provides one or more of a range of anti-poverty services like food and clothes banks because of what staff call the “heart-breaking” effects of poverty. And rather than see some children miss out on things that others take for granted – like trips, music and sport – many schools are covering the cost of these activities. Yet this approach is unsustainable, as demand rises and school funding is squeezed.
Working with the National Education Union, we asked people working in schools up and down the country about their experience of child poverty. 87% of respondents reported that poverty affects the learning of their students significantly. 60% think that the extent of poverty in their schools and its effect has got worse in the last three years. It’s therefore no wonder that school staff want to do more to support these children – with many even helping pupils out of their own pockets.
Government support, which should release families from the grip of poverty, is not strong enough. Within the school environment, the state provides free school meals to children in low-income families. But according to over half the staff we surveyed, not enough children are currently eligible for them, and 21% think some who are eligible are missing out – whether through stigma, lack of awareness or the bureaucratic process of claiming them. Wider eligibility for free school meals would lessen financial stress on families and ensure children have a nutritious hot meal every day – so important when, as one respondent pointed out, ‘the school day is so demanding’.
The effects of rising child poverty, and increased pressure on family finances, are clearly being seen in our schools – hampering children’s ability to learn and reach their potential. The safety net is not catching children even when their need is great. What future are we giving our children when they feel financial pressure at home, and face insufficient support at school, despite the best efforts of their teachers?